The Ultimate Escape

It should come as no surprise to anyone when I make this statement: KATIE ADORES ESCAPE ROOMS. Since her first in-person escape room during a birthday celebration, Katie has gone on to design many awesome literary escape rooms, both in-person (see here, here, and here), and virtual (see here, here, and here)! So it makes total sense for her to test drive Finders Seekers, a mailed-right-to-your-door escape room company. Take it away, Katie!


Yes, I adore escape rooms, both participating in and creating them! Not being able to partake in a live escape room because of the pandemic, I eagerly started searching for a worthy “at-home” alternative. That’s when I found Finders Seekers.

Finders Seekers is a monthly subscription where you receive a box in the mail with an escape room mystery adventure inside. The rooms are based on the culture and history of a different city somewhere in the world. The cities have covered the entire globe, including Sydney, Australia; Athens, Greece; Petra, Jordan; and San Francisco, California. There are a couple options for purchasing: you can sign up for a month-to-month service for $30, or you can select up to 3 levels of prepay spanning a year. There’s a gift option for sending a box to an escape room fanatic as well. You can cancel your subscription at any time.

Your “Escape Room in a Box” literally comes in a Finders Seekers marked box, which tells you that “The Mystery Begins Inside.” When you open the box, you find a “Classified” envelope with all the materials you’ll need to solve the escape room, along with a letter of specific instructions from Lucy Calder, Chief Seer of the Society of Seekers. Chief Seer Calder provides a website with links to different locations within the city, along with supporting information to help you solve the clues and puzzles.

Our first Finders Seekers adventure took us up the East Coast to Boston, Massachusetts. From the deck in our backyard, my son and I raced along Boston’s Freedom Trail and visited 10 historical stops along the way. We were tested by 10 “patriots” at the sites and once we solved the riddle, we were given a token that helped us decipher the final mystery to the location of a stolen relic.

The descriptions and data provided within the website work hand-in-hand with the materials found inside the envelope. You definitely need both elements to figure out the solution. If you get stuck on a puzzle, never fear. The website provides additional hints (and even the final solution!) if you need help as you work through the escape room.

My 13 year-old son and I found some of the puzzles rather easy to figure out, whereas others required us to put in a bit more thought to figure out the solution. Some friends of ours did it with their daughter and her friends (ages 9-11) with success as well. Even though my son and I had decided to not use any of the extra hints, we did get help once because it was difficult to read part of the clue on our materials and the puzzle wasn’t terribly clear.

Otherwise we managed to solve the escape room entirely on our own. Together we traveled through the city, learned fun facts about one of the most historical places in the United States, and crossed the Boston Marathon Finish Line in a little over two hours!

Our other Finders Seekers adventures had us jetting off to Paris, France and making various stops along the Metro, including the Catacombs and Moulin Rouge. We also have a mystery in Beijing, China waiting for us to solve.

For families who like game nights, for couples searching for a fun date activity, or for anyone who simply loves escape rooms (including yours truly), Finders Seekers is ideal. You finish the escape room in one sitting, rather than having to solve one section and then wait another month for the next part of the mystery. You can also do it entirely on your own! It provides enough challenges to foster excitement and intrigue for several enjoyable hours and introduces the adventurers to new places and cultures. Finders Seekers receives my highest recommendation!

Bookshelf Treasure Hunt

Have bookshelf, will adventure! Even the smallest shelf can be used to create clues leading to a final treasure. Best of all, this journey can be adjusted to any age level, requires no special materials, and is very budget friendly!

Before we proceed, it’s important to make the distinction between a bookshelf scavenger hunt and a bookshelf treasure hunt. A scavenger hunt involves finding a specific list of items on the shelves (ex: “A blue book” or “A book with a person’s name in the title”). A treasure hunt begins with an initial clue, which leads to more clues that proceed in sequential order to a final prize. That’s what we’ll be focusing on today. A treasure hunt.

treasure hint 2

The biggest bookshelves are in our living room, so I set my treasure hunt there. This 9 clue hunt was designed for my 9 year old daughter. In addition to books, I used objects on the shelves. You can also do this activity with a smaller shelf, books laid out on a table, span it across multiple shelves in the house, or hide individual books around the entire house. It’s very flexible! The only materials I used were paper, scissors, and tape. I typed my clues, but you can hand write them as well.

I hid Clue #1 under my daughter’s lunch plate. When she lifted it to clear her place, she immediately spotted a mysterious folded note with question marks. It read: Ready for a treasure hunt? Head to the living room bookshelves. The unicorn will start you on your way…

She immediately knew what the clue was referencing. I love collecting original art from thrift stores, so here’s the unicorn from the clue. Lifting the painting, Clue #2 was revealed, cut in the shape of a unicorn speech bubble.

It read: “My friend the dragon has been captured! Can you free him? Oh, and you’ll need to bring some chewing gum, ribbons, and lollipops for the tigers, lion, and crocodiles!” This is reference to My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Inside that book, may daughter found Clue #3: TIME WILL TELL. This lead her to our shelf clock with a message sneakily taped to its back:

The clue read: Would you want a little brother like this? Hint: He’s NOT sweet like his name! This lead to one of her favorite books, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. Inside was Clue #4: Third red book from the left. By the way, you might like this series! A bit of maneuvering and counting led to The Anybodies by N.E. Bode. Also, Clue #5, which was a foray into Mom’s non-fiction section: No one knows his name, but everyone sees his art

My daughter recognized the reference, and located Banksy: You Are An Acceptable Level Of Threat And If You Were Not You Would Know About It by CarpetBombingCulture. Inside, Clue #6 read: 1 shelf over 2 shelves up. Find a KINGDOM. The search resulted in The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle plus Clue #7: Upwards! A…B…and behind C!

So, my daughter reports that Clue #7 was definitely the most difficult one. I had to drop one hint (“It says ABC”). But it was awesome to see her start working out that the clue referred to the large letters of three book titles on the upper shelf: Abarat by Clive Barker; Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle; and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (who I interview here!).

Clever girl figured it out, and was awarded with Clue #8, which read: The most secret place on the bookshelf. Hint: A mouse resides in it! Seconds later, she was opening a fake-bookcase-secret-liquor-cabinet. It’s one of my favorite yard sale finds, ever.

Inside was tiny heart card that contained Clue #9: What’s new in your room? There, my daughter found two new books illuminated by her nightstand lamp: When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed; and The Misadventures oft the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy.

This treasure hunt was fun, and very easy to put together. A couple of hints:

  • I started with books my daughter was already familiar with to get things rolling, then introduced new books I hope she’ll browse later.
  • I put the clues in the same place in every book, so she would know where to look each time. If you want to extend the time of your hunt, place the clues on random pages.
  • With the exception of the clock clue, I kept everything at eye level. You especially want to do this with younger kids. You don’t want them climbing, searching, and reaching all at the same time. They might topple over in their excitement.
  • For older kids, consider including additional codes and ciphers to translate the clues (mirror writing is a great option, and I love the pigpen cipher from this MYSTERY CLOSET post).
  • The treasure doesn’t have to be budget busting. It can be a pack of new pens, books checked out from your local library, a bit of extra dessert, or a message that simply says “Well done!”
  • Once your child completes the bookshelf treasure hunt, invite them to design one for YOU. My daughter currently has one in the works!

By the way, I hid something in this post for you as well…did you notice there was ONE photo that had nothing to do with the original treasure hunt or the clues? If you guessed the second photo, you are correct! In it, you’ll see my old, beat-up globe resting on a book recommendation for your young readers. The Last Treasure by Janet S. Anderson. It’s a fantastic story about a kid who gets involved in a treasure hunt that stretches far into his family tree, an expansive estate, and a very tricky set of clues (some rather dangerous!). What he discovers is historical, amazing, and touching.

Other treasure-hunting books residing on my home shelves over the years include: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn by John Bellairs; The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands (interview here); Who Stole the Wizard of Oz by Avi; Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas by Jonathan W. Stokes (project here); Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass (interview here); Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans (project here, interview here); and Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (interview here).

And while most readers would technically classify this book as a scavenger hunt, I would be remiss not to mention Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein!

Poison in Princeton: A Sherlock Holmes Escape Room

sherlock holmes escape room

You might recall the sneak peek of our Sherlock Holmes escape room. Now it’s time to unveil all its secrets! It all started when our gang did a professional escape room for my birthday weekend. Katie and I thought the puzzle-solving premise of the escape room would pair perfectly with the literary world’s master of deduction.

bottle solvingThis entire escape room – the research, the puzzles, the narrative, the props, the logistics – is all Katie’s doing! Her preparations were extensive. She watched escape room videos, visited escape rooms, and had a meeting with game master Rebecca Ross from “Epic Escape Game” in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She bounced clue ideas around with Princeton University student Anna Leader (she of Victorian Tea fame) and pretested everything on a group of 6th graders at the Saint Paul School of Princeton. The logistics were pretty staggering too. We ran 3 identical escape rooms simultaneously for 5 hours,180 kids total.

solving pop sci

The premise of the escape room was that a poison had been released into the water system of Princeton, and Princeton University asked Sherlock Holmes to quickly find an antidote. He did, but a nefarious group of business men were trying to capture him, steal the antidote, and sell it to the infected populace. Holmes escaped and hid the antidote in a room with clues on how to find it. Kids had 20 minutes to solve the clues and identify the antidote.

The escape rooms took place in East Pyne Hall on campus. Its beautiful wood-paneled classrooms with leaded windows were the perfect setting for a Victorian caper.

east pyneUpon entering the room, kids found a large wooden desk with a number of items scattered on it. A teacup, teabag, an old map of London, a magnifying glass, books, photos, trade cards, a key, and an issue of Popular Science.

desktopAs I mentioned in the sneak peek, the trade cards, Popular Science, photos, and books are real objects from that period (sooooo cool). Also in the classroom were 8-10 Princeton University test booklets…

test bookletsFive bottles on the windowsill with scientific labels (Katie filled the bottles with items from her pantry, and hot glued the corks in really, really tight!)…

bottlesThere was a padlocked wooden box, which was in turn chained to a radiator grate…

locked box and keyAlso chained to the radiator (and far, far out of range of the box) was a key that had an unusual letter lock.

letter lockAdditionally, the room had two signs posted on opposite walls. An alphabet:

alphabet cipherAnd a figurine code. Holmes fans will recognize this as the famous “Dancing Men” cipher.

dancing men cipherThe blackboard also contained some clues…

clues on blackboardFinally, we had “Do Not Touch” signs posted in the room for over-eager investigators. You’re definitely going to need these…kids tear the rooms up looking for clues!

do not touch trapdoordo not touch flatscreenHere’s how all the clues worked, and the final solution. Hidden inside (and on) the various objects were Dancing Men clues. There was one inside a book:

book clue

One spread across the back of 2 test booklets…

test booklet clue

There was one on the back of the tea bag…

tea bag clueOne on an old map of London (you needed the magnifying glass to find it):

map clueFinally, there was one in a dyspepsia ad in Popular Science.

popular science clueThe last two clues were a little hard to find, so we left hints on the blackboard…

scotland yard hintdyspepsia hintThe Dancing Men clues corresponded to the 2 signs on the wall. Each figurine matched a different letter of the alphabet.

dancing men cipher

alphabet cipher

However, the signs were posted on opposing walls. So the kids had to cooperate to solve them. Teamwork! Did you notice the Roman numeral on each Dancing Men clue? Those were the order in which you dialed the letters on the letter lock.

letter lockOnce the key was released from the letter lock, it opened the padlock on the wooden box.

solving box clueInside the box was an old-fashioned periodic table with the words “I’ve found it!” scrawled on it. Elements hydrogen (H), sodium (Na), oxygen (O), and phosphorous (P) were circled as well.

periodic table clueKids matched the circled elements to the correct label on the antidote bottle. And we made sure it was an actual antidote. Sodium hydrogen orthophosphate is a saline laxative agent (something Katie’s 11 year-old finds endlessly amusing).

final solutionThe kids took the bottle to the game master, who confirmed that they had solved the escape room! We had a game master in each room, dropping hints when needed, preventing parents from solving puzzles, and generally keeping kids on task. Here are our 3 amazing game masters, Princeton University students Anna Leader, Anne Merrill, and Erica Choi.

game mastersAs kids exited the room, the game masters awarded them their choice of a souvenir key to take home!

key prizeBut wait, you say, what about the photographs, the trade cards, the key on the desk, and all that other writing on the blackboard? Hah HAH! Those are all red herrings, added to throw kids off. Because it wouldn’t be an escape room without red herrings!

red herrings

And how did the escape room go over? Very, very, well! There was excited screaming, running, urgent problem solving, clever work-arounds, and hilarious dialogue. Two of our favorites as heard through the door: “For the LOVE! Will someone please FIND Scotland Yard?!?” and this one (presumably when the periodic table was discovered): “Oh my gosh…guys! We all got Ds in science class!” Most kids finished the room right at the 20 minutes mark. The record? 12 minutes, my dear Watson.

To conclude, here is a list of hints for running the room. If you have any specific questions, or want to know where we found/ bought our items, feel free to e-mail Katie: zondlo@princeton.edu

  • Our room was designed for ages 9-14. A maximum of 6 kids participated per room.
  • Make sure participants arrive at least 10 minutes before the game begins. We were very clear in all promotional and registration material that late arrivals would not be admitted.
  • Have a waiting area for participants, and try to keep it away from the the actual escape room so no one overhears the puzzles being solved.
  • Make sure all clues are printed. Not all kids can read cursive. We learned this the hard way.
  • Test everything in advance! Make sure the locks slide into the objects they’re supposed to lock! Again, learned this the hard way.
  • Make sure you have backups of every clue and object in case something breaks or wanders away (scotch tape for paper repairs is a good idea too).
  • Make sure the game masters know the game. We ran them through the room once, and we gave them cheat sheets on event day.
  • Bring cell phone chargers. Our 20 minute game timers were our cell phones. Woe to ye who runs out of battery!

Many thanks to everyone who helped us put this escape room together! Thank you Rebecca Ross from Epic Escape Game for fielding our endless questions. Anna Leader, thank you for helping with the puzzles! Thank you to Anne Merrill, Erica Choi, and Anna for being such excellent game masters. To the young investigators at Saint Paul School Princeton, thank you for enthusiastically testing our room. And finally, a BIG tip of the deerstalker to Katie for putting this all together. You are an escape room MASTER!